We sat down with theater employee extraordinaire Mollie Moses to learn more about her and get to know the amazing story behind her family’s connection to the theater. Many of you know Mollie from the box office, and she has some incredible stories from the last century from when her parents, Monte and Connie, saved the theater from demolition.
CTD: When did you start working at the theater and why did you want to be involved?
MM: I began officially working at the Carolina Theatre in 1978, making the popcorn in the popcorn room upstairs, close to where the legacy boxes are now. The popcorn room was removed in the 90s to make room for lights and flies over the stage. I could tell you all kinds of stories about the popcorn process back then, with the oil in a big can, the corn in giant bags, the monstrous cast iron kettle in which the corn was cooked, and the gas ring that had to be lit with strike-anywhere wooden matches.
Eventually, other people were brought in to make popcorn, and I wrote down the instructions on how to perform the process. I did it on small sheets of colored paper, taping them up on the wall. During the theater renovation, Godfrey Cheshire from The Spectator (predecessor to The Independent) noted these instructions and presented them in the Spectator as “best found poetry.” A collage of the instructions and the article was created and hung for years in the concession area close to Cinema One until it was removed in the mid-2000s when the walls were emptied and painted.
When I wasn’t making popcorn, I would sit at the top of the steps in the lobby (this was pre-renovation, and the lobby looked very different than it does now), tearing little paper tickets into a glass fishbowl. At night, after the movies stopped showing, I’d help the manager count tickets (no computers then!), and count intake from concessions and the box office.
I worked pre-renovation from 1977 (helping my mom with the ballroom, scraping paint off windows, shoveling guano, cleaning seats, etc.) to 1983, took a “life break,” and came back in 2002. I think I would have liked the challenge and responsibilities of being a house manager in those earlier days. One of the requirements of the house manager’s job was that one had to be able to lift 50 lbs. so that one took me out of the running (structural flaws).
My parents, Monte and Connie Moses were big theater people (they met in college in Maine doing a production of “Arsenic and Old Lace”), and when they moved to Durham in 1959, Connie had her hands in every theatrical production she could manage, whilst raising two young daughters. There were a couple of productions done in the old Washington Duke Hotel downtown, before its implosion in the mid-1970s.
Monte and Connie, who were horrified to see the old buildings crumbling to the forces of urban renewal, discovered that the Carolina Theatre was slated to be demolished and that another development would be built in its place. So, they corralled a bunch of friends and community members and stood in front of the machine with the wrecking ball, insisting that the Carolina Theatre be spared. Connie, seeing the room upstairs that was (at that time) divided into three dark offices by concrete blocks, declared that it looked to her like a ballroom. When she knew that the building was spared from destruction, she set about recruiting volunteers to help redo the ballroom into her vision of elegance.
So having helped my mother with the ballroom, and making the popcorn, and many other things, I knew I had to keep working at the Carolina for as long as they’d have me. I had to help keep the grande dame alive. There have been both great memories and stumbling blocks along the way, and I’m grateful to my coworkers and managers for their patience and support.
CTD: What do you like most about your job?
MM: Making people happy. Whether it’s extra butter in many layers on the popcorn, being able to sell tickets to folks that they REALLY wanted, and satisfying the customer without rushing or pushing them fills a place in my soul.
Another thing that I like is that my suggestions are welcome, and seeing things happen as a result makes me feel good. Over the years, I’ve seen the theater go from a nascent non-profit with a small budget to the community cornerstone it is today; from handwritten whiteboard signs to professionally produced signage; from foreign films to first-run English speaking films; from worn rugs to designer carpets; and from creaky seats to luxuriously padded ones. The walls also went through a myriad of colors, including the beautifully crafted and colorful Art Deco style designs that were hand-painted on the walls on either side of the screen in Cinema One.
CTD: Can you share a favorite memory of working at the theater?
MM: My sister Kitty worked at the box office at the theater in the 1970s. At that time the warehouses were still standing on Morgan Street, and Roney Street was the “main drag” for the Carolina Theatre. It was not uncommon for one of us to run across the street to the Chinese restaurant that was in one of the warehouses, order soup and egg rolls to go, and trot back to work to share the booty. Good times! Everyone thinks that my sister is older than I am because she went places and did things and gained her own bit of notoriety by being in a local band and getting her video onto MTV. Nope, I’m older than she is, believe it or not. I just don’t have her impressive resume!
CTD: What are a few interesting facts about yourself that most people don’t know?
MM: Most people may not know that I knit, crochet, make jewelry, and within the past four years, have been dabbling in painting. My eyes can (and will!) pick out a misspelling or typo almost immediately, even in movie posters and credits! It’s scary sometimes. I’m not sure if it’s a talent, a blessing, or a curse.
I mimic voices and accents, too. This may be left over from when my dad read to us as kids, putting different voices to different characters. Some things just stay for good. People also say I’m funny. That’s fine – I like to make people smile and feel good!
CTD: If you had the opportunity to see any artist at the theater (past or present), who would it be and why?
MM: I’d love to see Mandy Patinkin return! He did a benefit for the theater back in the late 1990s I believe. There was no way I could go that night because I didn’t have the money. But then my dad called and invited me to go with him. I jumped at the chance, grabbed a couple of polymer clay roses I had made earlier, and enjoyed the amazing performance with Monte. After the show, Monte and I waited in line to speak to Mandy. When our turn came, I thanked him for his performance and handed him the clay roses. He cradled them gently in his palm, then looked at me and asked, “Why are you giving me two?” “One for you, one for your wife,” I replied. “Ohhhhhh,” he breathed softly, “thank you. Nobody thinks of Kathryn.” I then asked Mr. Patinkin for his autograph. He grabbed one of his CDs, pulled the wrapping off, popped open the jewel case, and wrote his name and mine on the disc. It’s a treasure.
Who else would I like to see perform at the theater? Hmmm, that’s a toughie…I think I would like to see Neil Sedaka. I bet the audience would be singing along! Also, Rodney Carrington — his songs are rude, crude, and downright hilarious! If either of them was still alive, I would have loved to see Alan Rickman and/or Raul Julia up on the Carolina Theatre stage. Heck, they could have read the phone book and I’d be entertained!
CTD: What is one special thing you would like people to know about the Carolina Theatre?
MM: There are three photos in which my images appear on the walls of the Carolina Theatre. Two are up on the first balcony level and one is closer to the stairwell. Find me!
The Carolina Theatre has its ghosts. There’s a flapper who hangs out by the stage door and a young man in a fancy usher’s uniform who appears now and then on the 2nd balcony. There’s also an elderly couple that waltzes around the stage (and sometimes outside), disguised as swirls of mist. I pulled out of the garage after a late shift one night, and there was a pair of misty shapes twirling in the street. I pulled the car up slowly, and the mist split in two, joined at the top like two people holding hands up high. I drove between them, and they melted together again and went swirling gently off into the night. And some people have said they have heard my mother singing softly in the ballroom.